Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle made headlines again yesterday when she reiterated what she'd told us a few weeks ago: it's time for the Chicago Police Department to stop arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
But the police department isn't ready to do anything different just yet, because some of the guys in the upper ranks continue to see pot busts as a way to get "gangbangers" off the street.
Preckwinkle, facing an estimated budget gap of more than $300 million for the 2012 fiscal year, says it's too costly to detain people for marijuana possession. She told a group of reporters yesterday that she's made this point to CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy but has yet to hear back. “I suggested to him that although the law is pretty clear that such possession is a violation of the law, that since the judges routinely and almost universally dismiss such low-level drug charges that the police might stop arresting people for this since it clogs up our jail and these people their cases will be dismissed out anyway,” she said.
In an interview with Ben Joravsky and me a couple weeks ago, Preckwinkle was even more blunt, saying she'd asked McCarthy to "stop arresting people for small amounts of drugs, because you're wasting our time."
McCarthy has been far more elusive on the subject.
Police department spokeswoman Maureen Biggane issued a written statement in response to Preckwinkle's latest comments: "Currently, the Chicago Police Department is reviewing the possibility of enforcement action other than physical arrest for certain cannabis offenses."
She did not provide any other details, but her comments were still a half step beyond what she'd last said on the subject. Three weeks ago we noted that the police have been arresting more than 23,000 people a year for misdemeanor pot possession—and that 78 percent of those arrested were black. The figures inspired a response that amount to a begging-off: "Crime and disorder issues emerge from a complicated web of social ills which law enforcement alone cannot correct."
Behind the scenes, though, the department leadership is engaged in a fuller debate.
A trusted source in the police department tells me he was at a recent meeting with various department brass when McCarthy raised the possibility of dealing with pot possession by issuing tickets—formally known as an Administrative Notices of Violation, or ANOVs—instead of making arrests.
"He threw out a question: 'Aren't most of these cases thrown out in court?'" says the source. McCarthy was told that most were not prosecuted.
"Then he said, 'What about writing a ticket in the street?' So of course some people are trying to kiss his ass—'Yeah, we were looking into that.'"
The problem, according to the source, was that a few high-ranking veterans—including Chief Nicholas Roti, head of the organized crime division—expressed deep concern over letting pot possessors get off without being locked up.
"He argued that [enforcing] it helps to get some of these gangbangers off the street for a few hours," says the source.
Of course, when cops take guys into the station for carrying a blunt or a dime bag, it's not just the people arrested who are pulled off the street—the cops are too. Then they're not out there to deal with shootings or serious drug dealing.
"Busting somebody for a bag of weed? That's a waste of time," another high-ranking member of the police department told me recently. "If the government controlled it we'd take the money away from these gangs."
What's unfortunate is that no one in uniform can openly say this.
Neither Biggane nor Chief Roti would comment on the account of my source.